Retooling for success

To remain profitable during the Second World War, many businesses had to change—quite literally. Inglis shifted from producing washing machines to Bren guns; instead of manufacturing civilian cars, GM and Ford turned out trucks and other military vehicles; CPR’s locomotive shop built tanks. Today, fundraising organizations are similarly trying to stay afloat; the entire sector “is facing a tough and deeply uncertain economic environment,” writes Annie Lowrey in the New York Times. The rise of general giving is sluggish, and “the roaring economy for the 1 percent has not led to a surge in big gifts” (“Government firing Nonprofits Angst,” November 8, 2013). In order to meet new economic realities, these organizations may need to renew their mandates, and to build awareness about their renewed sense of purpose—so audiences see their missions as still worthy of support.

Can your organization retool, and shift perceptions about what it does? Planning the change may seem easy compared to the challenge of making people believe you do what you say: breaking through the clutter to make your message understood is no easy task. Though it seems cliché, standing out today is harder than ever because you’re “competing against advertising and marketing from everybody” —for-profit and nonprofit alike, not just the organizations in your own narrow niche (David Wallis, “Charities try provocative ads to attract attention,” New York Times, November 8, 2013).

If you’re really trying to retool and change perceptions, the first task in figuring out how to successfully break through the clutter is not asking what to do, it’s to be clear about what won’t work. Nonprofits have a curious willingness to embrace brand inappropriate marketing gimmicks. This now includes ambushing people with provocative ads; trying to be different by amusing, shocking, or startling audiences and hoping it spreads virally through social media.

This latest panacea—craved by managers desperate to raise awareness—is a stunt that demands “look at me!” But even if it does spread (the odds are like winning the lottery), does a viral video equate to meaning and retention? You need to be realistic about your expectations and the opportunity cost of such a seemingly clever tactic. That viral video won’t build the brand you want—it’s just noise making the clutter worse. And because the short-term focus on chasing attention doesn’t effectively advance awareness of the nonprofit’s message, it isn’t worth what it costs and only wastes precious resources.

Retooling nonprofits need to find more meaningful ways to persuade the public about their promise. What are the substantive ideas that ensure the image you want is deeply rooted? There are interested and thoughtful potential audiences for what you want to talk about, but to reach them you need to do a better job at “the tell.” What you know—your unique ideas—is the key enabler in the effort to achieve fundraising goals.

By all means, be “intrusive” and be provocative. But balance your resources and your effort: don’t forget to develop and transmit substantive stories as part of the mix. Build the mechanisms allowing you to communicate deep, meaningful information. That’s the solution to your “how-to-brand” conundrum.

When substantive communication is at the heart of the mission, you’ll see a strategically focused organization whose audiences understand what you do, are convinced they get good value, and want to stay connected; donors who believe their money is being used wisely and in an engaging, beneficial manner; and an organization that enjoys high levels of donor retention.